Celebrating Robert Fergusson: A New Zealand Connection

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 16.29.05Scottish poet Robert Fergusson died on 16 October 1774. At times described as the lesser brother of Robert Burns, Fergusson too left his mark in the Scottish diaspora. Let’s look at the story of New Zealand Burns enthusiast James Craigie in a bit more detail to see what role Fergusson played for him.

Born at Coupar Angus, Perthshire, in 1851, Craigie arrived in New Zealand at the age of fifteen together with his parents. He was an apprentice to a painter in Dunedin, later setting up a small business in Timaru in 1873 as importer and general decorator; he also owned a farm at Kingsdown, situated 6 miles to the south of Timaru. Perhaps it was his Scottish upbringing that fostered in Craigie a strong civic spirit. He was involved in local and national politics as Chairman of the Timaru Harbour Board, served as Timaru Borough Councillor, became the Mayor of Timaru, and was then elected as Member of the House of Representatives and Member of the Legislative Council.

It was Craigie who, in the early twentieth century, was the sole financier of the Timaru Burns statue. Described as ‘one of the real Burns enthusiasts, [who] . . . has done much to enhance the fame and popularity of the great Scottish bard in New Zealand’, Burns offered Craigie an active link to the old home, but his commitment went further. In 1925, for instance, he sent a £100 donation to the Burns Federation for the purpose of starting a fund to erect a memorial for Robert Fergusson in Edinburgh. In a letter to the secretary of the Burns Federation, Craigie explained:

I believe that, with the exception of the stone erected by Burns over the remains of one whom he described as the “elder brother” of his muse, Robert Fergusson has no memorial in Scotland, not even in his native city. It is surely passing strange. To Robert Fergusson more than any other pre-Burns writer we are indebted for the revival and continued use of “braid Scots”.

Craigie had long maintained connections to the Burns Federation and similar clubs in Scotland. A year prior to his donation, he had visited the home country and been honoured with a reception in the Glasgow Burns House Club, where he was presented with a gold badge ‘suitably inscribed in recognition of his distinguished services to the Burns cult’. Craigie’s devotion to his ancestral home was also much in evidence when he returned to Scotland in 1927 for the unveiling of the Fergusson memorial in Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral, a memorial the entire cost for which Craigie had, in 1926, defrayed. ‘Although Mr Craigie lives away in New Zealand’, stated Sir Robert Bruce, President of the Burns Federation at the unveiling ceremony, ‘he is far more Scottish, if I might use the expression, than many of us who live in the middle of the homeland.’

This story is a slightly revised extract from chapter 6, ‘Collective Rememberings of Home: Robert Burns as a Site of Memory’, from my Scottish Ethnicity and the Making of New Zealand Society, 1850-1930.

Leave a Reply